Scrutiny as a mindset

Posted on 11/10/2018 by Fiona Corcoran.

I had an interesting conversation on Twitter (inevitably) recently which got me to thinking about how we conceive of scrutiny – what it’s for and how we think about it.

Forgive me for the navel-gazing, but we are engaged in helping the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) as they draft the new statutory guidance on overview and scrutiny in local government, and the exercise has provoked some thought about the kinds of words we should use to talk about the scrutiny function.

Cllr Tom Coole at Gloucester Council tweeted saying that overview and scrutiny is a process, not a committee. Tom was quoting, with amendment, the words of Ron Davies, former Secretary of State for Wales, who said that “devolution is a process, not an event”. That’s obviously right – scrutiny is something continuous, rather than something which happens four or six times of year in a committee room.

But I think it’s more than this, even. Scrutiny is a mindset, and not just a mindset of those doing the scrutinising. It’s a mindset of those being scrutinised.

We too often make the assumption that “good scrutiny” is down to the scrutineers themselves – that when scrutiny fails, this is the failure of scrutiny councillors and the officers who support them. Scrutiny practitioners know the reality though. A resistant and defensive executive (and, in particular, defensive senior officers) can stymie and thwart scrutiny no matter how conscientious those trying to hold them to account.

This happens because people know they can get away with it, because of the lack of a parity of esteem between scrutiny and the executive in local government leads to a big power imbalance. Like all power imbalances, this is easy to abuse. Only a radically different mindset can make scrutiny successful.

It’s relatively easy to think of the kind of personal characteristics that make up the scrutiny mindset for those being scrutinised. Reflective, self-critical, willing to be challenged and to challenge others, people willing to experiment and try different ways of doing things. They are the kind of characteristics that we increasingly value in our senior managers; they are the kinds of characteristics that we see reflected in job ads for these kinds of roles, and have done for many years.

It is easy, too, to talk the talk of this kind of behaviour. At CfGS we are familiar with the vague, warm words of supposedly supportive CEOs and Leaders – people who talk about the fact that their “door is always open” and that they relish the opportunity to be scrutinised. In the abstract maybe – but when it comes down to it the enthusiasm usually melts away.

It takes mettle, and leadership, to walk the walk of a scrutiny mindset – to accept the tough necessity of public criticism as being part and parcel of operating in a political institution. It takes people who are willing to have that spotlight shined on them – and to accept the fact that it will show up blemishes. Who understand that scrutiny may cause problems in the short term – but that engaging with it, for all those perceived difficulties, is likely to produce long-term reward.

People who also understand that making scrutiny work is a two-way street, and where scrutiny seems productive and ineffective, ask the question “what am I doing wrong?” rather than sitting back, arms folded, and chuckling about the uselessness of “overscrew and mutiny” (trust me, that particular pun got old in about 2002).

Am I palming off scrutiny’s failure onto senior leaders? Not a bit of it. We have to look to the capability of the scrutiny function too – the way that it works, how it present scrutiny, how it is carried out  – as we always have done. But that needs to be accompanied by a commitment from those leaders to support not only in theory, but also when scrutiny gets difficult, and when it might be politically expedient to ignore it.


Written by Ed Hammond, Director, Centre for Governance and Scrutiny